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How to Build a Happier Brain in Two Easy Steps

Rick Hanson's book, "Hardwiring Happiness," reveals how to "take in the good."

Why Can’t We Just Be Happy?

“The world is so full of a number of things/I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson.

Yet we’re not. As the comedian Louis C.K. remarked, “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” (See end of blog for his delightful rant.)

Why can’t we find lasting happiness? Under normal conditions, daily life is filled with miracles such as wonderful people, delicious food, air-conditioning, jet planes, and computers, but we tend to take them all for granted after a while. Is there a way to better appreciate and savor the good things of life?

The Main Obstacle to Your Happiness

I was thinking about this issue as I read Hardwiring Happiness, the insightful book about happiness by psychologist and PT blogger Rick Hanson. As I read, I actually had an “aha” experience about why it is so difficult to cultivate thinking habits that promote happiness—and why it is so important to overcome those difficulties. For the first time, thanks to Hanson, I was able to connect the dots.

The reason we must choose to make a deliberate and conscious effort to experience and appreciate the positive side of life is this:

To counteract the negativity bias that is hardwired into our brains.

“The negativity bias” is the tendency for our brains to notice, absorb, and react to bad things—threats, dangers, worries, anger, mistakes—more strongly and persistently than to good things—pleasure, joy, beauty, and supportive relationships, among others.

Why would Mother Nature do this to us? The negativity bias evolved to help us survive. On the African savanna around 50,000 B.C., the happy-go-lucky humans who were “enjoying the moment” became lunch for the saber-toothed tigers. The anxious humans, who scanned constantly for perils that might be lurking, were the ones who survived and passed down their brain structure from generation to generation.

How the Negativity Bias Affects Your Daily Life

The result is that “(o)ur brains are Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good ones,” as Hanson memorably puts it.

Thanks to the negativity bias, if you have three positive moments today and one difficult one, your mind will linger on the difficult one. This bias is the reason why it takes five good interactions to balance out just one sour episode with your partner. It's why people dislike losses more than they like gains. It's why it can sometimes be hard to relax and enjoy life. Blame your brain!

Although the negativity bias has helped us survive, fear and anxiety don’t do much to promote lasting happiness and mental health. A negative mindset can prevent us from accepting challenges, keeping bad experiences in perspective, and being as happy as we could be. I’ve always wondered why the most common mental health problem is anxiety disorders. After reading Hanson’s book, I think I have a clue as to just why this might be.

Compensating for the Negativity Bias

So are we all destined to lead our lives under a cloud of negativity and anxiety? Not at all. Although happiness is partly a result of our genetics and our past experiences, happiness is also a choice.

“The best way to compensate for the ‘negativity bias’ is to regularly ‘take in the good,’” Hanson explains. "Taking in the good" refers to seeking out and absorbing positive experiences, building your inner strengths, and minimizing suffering and harm to you and others.

Hanson emphasizes that taking in the good does not mean denying emotional pain or ignoring life's difficulties and traumas. It just means that you can train yourself to notice the positive experiences you are having as well as the negative ones. You won’t become a Pollyanna; in fact, you will still notice the dark side of life because of…you guessed it!...the negativity bias.

Two Small Steps to Build Lasting Happiness

You can balance out the negativity bias with a little work—fun, pleasant work!—on your part. Once you decide to do it, it is surprisingly simple to take in positive experiences and install them in your brain—to "hardwire happiness." In Hanson’s words: “This practice (of taking in the good), applied to a positive experience, boils down to just four words: have it, enjoy it.” (Hanson also uses a more complex, four-step practice for more complicated situations.)

Step 1: Have it. Having a positive experience, even a minor one like a tasty lunch, activates positive emotions such as happiness in your brain. For best results, recognize when you are in a safe situation; then deliberately focus on the good that is around you or within you instead of scanning for possible problems.

Step 2: Enjoy it. Spend time enjoying the positive experience. For example, when you get a compliment, notice it, smile, and savor it. When you finish a task, step back and admire your work for a while. As you absorb the experience, you install it in your brain. If you rest your mind on the good experience for about five seconds, you will install it in long-term memory storage. This step will allow the positive experience to shape your brain. Eventually the habit of positive experiencing (as opposed to positive thinking) will build neural structure in your brain. You will find that you become increasingly more able to notice the good things in your life, bring them to awareness, and savor them. I will venture to term this new neural structure, "the happiness bias."

Now you’re building a happier brain. And the more you practice the “have it/enjoy it” process, the greater the impact on your brain. You become more adept at hardwiring happiness.

More Habits of Happiness

Hanson sprinkles numerous suggestions for building happiness throughout Hardwiring Happiness. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. When you’ve had a positive experience, mentally replay it again and again.

2. Decide what inner strengths you would most like to cultivate. Then notice and recall the times during the day when you have practiced that strength. For example, suppose you’d like to cultivate “kindness.” Thinking back, recall the time when you were kind, or at least courteous, to that customer service rep rather than expressing undue impatience or surly outrage. Savor the experience of growing in a healthy direction.

3. Be on your own side. Hanson notes that “(b)eing for yourself, not against others but on your own side, is the foundation of all practices or health, well-being, and effectiveness.” Watch for times when you act on your own behalf. Take satisfaction from these actions! Replay them in your mind!

4. Make sure each day contains some healthy pleasures. Among its obvious virtues, pleasure reduces stress, increases happiness, and provides positive experiences. In Hanson’s words, “Pleasure is an underrated resource for physical and mental health.”

5. Take in the good with other people by talking about positive experiences together.

I highly recommend that you read Hardwiring Happiness. Hanson offers so many useful and amazing ideas in this book that you can “take in the good” with every page! As you practice the process of have it/enjoy it, you may discover the truth of this beautiful sentence which stood out for me as if in neon lights: “Each moment of experience is saturated with an almost overwhelming fullness.”

© Meg Selig, 2016

Source: Hanson, Rick (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York: Harmony Books.

If you enjoyed this blog, sample these related blogs on happiness:

"10 Ways to Make Yourself Happier in 30 Seconds or Less"

"The 9 Superpowers of Your Smile"

"2 Essential Habits for Your Health and Happiness"

"Want to be Happier? It's As Easy As 2, 5, 11, 15, 20, 43"

Bio: I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more on health, happiness, and habits, scroll down to my photo and follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Video: "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy."